Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Second Realm 2.3: Falling Off the Face of the Earth

First Episode - Previous Episode - Smashwords (still free) - Next Episode

Falling With Style

3: Falling Off the Face of the Earth

The dream of being squeezed in a cold, damp, bony fist faded. The aches remained, up and down Pevan’s back and neck. So, for that matter, did the skeletal fingers, rendered in grey-brown wood. She opened her eyes and let the headache back in, mercifully reduced. She’d escaped logic burnout, so it would be hours rather than days before she got back to full strength, but it still hurt.

The muted colours of the wet forest formed a soft contrast to Van Raighan’s thin, angular body. The thief – she’d told herself to stop thinking of him that way – crouched a few feet away, watching her, a hefty branch under one grimy hand. Fresh rain that must have fallen while she slept had plastered his hair to his head and his clothes to his skin. That and a narrow, pointed face combined cruelly to give him the look of a drowned rat.

From the chill feel over the crown of her head and down the back of her neck, Pevan concluded she probably looked no better. At least the pursuing Noncs hadn’t caught up while she’d slept. Testing the limits of her recovery, Pevan reached out mentally for a spot she knew a couple of miles away, began the process of spinning up a Gateway. It came easily, blessedly so in comparison to the still-fresh memory of the last, desperate Gate that had provided their escape.

She let it go and watched Van Raighan – Chag – notice she’d woken. His face opened in response, for a brief instant guileless in its smile. She thought of the strange vision he’d shown her, of her as his lover, and couldn’t suppress a shiver. Well, she was cold and wet. Shivering was only natural.

If I’m still here when you wake up, will you take it as proof of my good intentions? He’d asked that just after making clear what he thought of the vision. If Pevan hadn’t actually agreed to the bargain, she hadn’t protested it. All the man had asked was a chance to have her hear his side of the story. He’d not only not taken advantage of her, he’d stayed despite the fact she was obliged to arrest him and bring him to justice.

It was either proof of his good intentions or proof that she wasn’t clever enough to figure out his tangled plot all by herself. She couldn’t keep the wry twist from her lips. He responded with, “Feeling better?”

She pushed herself up to sitting, grunting in pain. A groan would show too much weakness. “Better enough.” What to say next? “What was it you wanted from me?”

He looked down. Slowly, deliberately, he took his hand away from his stick, folded his arms on his knees. “Come and meet the people who talked me into... well, everything, really. I can’t explain this the way they can.”

“I’m not prepared to think of that as harmless.” She narrowed her eyes at him, just long enough to worry him. Then she smiled. That seemed to worry him more, which felt good to see. “I’ll come, but I don’t fancy the idea of taking my eye off you.”

The brightness in his smile was brittle. “I don’t suppose I can ask more than that.”

“Where are we going, then?” Pevan wondered if she sounded any less fragile. It was hard to be cheery when she was this cold and wet. Somewhere nearby, a bird chirped, the sound hanging plaintively in the air. She sympathised.

"North. Across the Wilds." His face told her he shared her opinion of the idea. Still, as the Noncs had shown them, the Northern Wilds were the best place to hide from First Realm society. Pevan didn't try to fight the twinge of unease; it would also be the best place to kill her without leaving a trace.

He hadn't killed her while she slept. She held onto that thought. Chag's behaviour since she'd caught up to him had been too odd to fit any simple explanation. He wanted her; perhaps he also needed her for something. She could accept the possibility of him being honest without trusting him outright. A facetious smile came easier this time as she made a show of looking over her shoulder, where she thought North probably lay. "There's a lot of North up there. I need something to aim for."

He straightened up. "For now, just head due North. I should start to recognise the terrain eventually. We didn't go too far East or West of Federas, did we?"

"A few miles East." Pevan rubbed her arms. "Will that be a problem? How far do we need to go?"

"About a hundred miles." Chag smiled as he said it, but his smile faded at exactly the same rate her blood cooled.

"You want to go right to the North border?" Pevan found herself stepping forward. Chag cringed. Another thought hit her, and the resulting shiver tripped her anger into a dark, icy pit. "You want to go to the Second Realm."

Face expressionless, he nodded. "You know my... allies are Wildren. We need to go through a Sherim the Gift-Givers aren't likely to be watching. I know the Sherim and the route, if you'll trust me. It's no more dangerous than any other Sherim."

"You're asking a lot."

"I'm offering a lot, too." He met her eyes. "Even if you're not interested in my Witnessings, I can give you an alternative to the Gift-Givers."

Holding the little man's gaze was harder than she'd expected. Some deep pain lay in the foundations of his intensity, and the rain added the semblance of tears to his grim countenance. "I'll go." She wanted a threat to follow it with, but besides dragging him back to Federas and losing her chance at his secrets, she had nothing over him.

He nodded again, gravely. "Thank you. I'm sorry I can't offer better assurances."

"We'd better get moving." She glanced upward, eyes narrowed against the heavy drips from the trees. They'd be the better part of three hours crossing the Wilds, and the day was running out. "You're sure you can find your Sherim?"

"I'm sure. I practiced it pretty heavily." His eyes finally softened. "Hah. I was so excited to be learning a second Sherim. Most Gifted back home don't even know two routes. You probably know, what? A dozen Sherim and thirty routes?"

"Two and seven. More than enough to defend the town." Pevan spun a Gateway from the forest floor beside him to somewhere high in the valley above. Her head barely ached, a welcome pay-off for her uncomfortable nap. "Better hope the Noncs are gone."

"Haven't heard any shouting since you went to sleep." Chag dropped lightly through the Gate, curling himself to land neatly on the far side.

Pevan followed. Beyond the Gate, without the shelter of the wood, the wind sprayed her with rain that prickled and sapped the last of her warmth from her. She ignored the discomfort, scanning the half-familiar sweep of Cloverleaf Valley to find North. Chag waited patiently, but she could feel his eyes on her.

She pushed open the next Gate and jumped through before he could react. By the time she had her feet on the ground, on the ridge at the head of the valley, the little man was rising out of the opening, the angle of his jump precisely adjusted to miss her. She shot him a glance that she hoped looked mildly amused - if she had any chance at all of looking anything other than sodden and miserable. "You know your stuff."

He grinned, despite looking sodden and miserable himself. "I might not have much field experience, but living in a quiet town gave me plenty of time to practice. With Rissad being such a strong Gatemaker, I spent a lot of time doing Gateway manoeuvres with him."

Before them, a steep-sided valley gaped. They'd crossed it in desperate flight earlier, scrambling up the heathered ridge with the cries of the Noncs at their heels. One of their pursuit had fallen to his death while running down the sharp slope opposite, but she couldn't make out his body. Her snatched rest told as she Gated easily across to the far side, letting Chag go first again. Better to treat him as a colleague despite his history, if they were going to risk the Second Realm together.

They pushed on northward, into the teeth of the rising weather and falling night. Moving in short hops cost Pevan little in the way of fatigue, and she was surprised to find that despite the reputation of the Northern Wilds for wildness, reality stayed stable. Chag asked occasional questions, about life in Federas, or Rel, or missions she'd been on, but she resisted being drawn. Wind and the rustling of wet grass became the dominant sounds of the journey.

As they fell into a steady gate-jump rhythm, monotony threatened. The terrain began to flatten out, valleys growing broader, hills less pronounced. Occasional pre-Crash ruins offered a little variety, but none was more than a heap of weathered, crumbling concrete. The two Gifted skirted the border of a forest whose trees showed the first obvious signs of the proximity of the Second Realm in branches that all strained southward.

Beyond that, they crossed the broad, grey flow of the Kashali River, emerging onto the silt of the North bank with the chilling awareness clinging to them that only a handful of humans had ever been this far and returned. As if to underline the point, as Pevan climbed to the top of the bank, the plain beyond seemed to twist down at the far corners, as if the globe of the world beneath her feet had suddenly shrunk.

The last thirty miles of the journey took them clear of the rain and plunged them into a twilight shot through with colours that had no place in a clear sky. Overhead, the blue took on a greenish tinge as it deepened; to the West, purple and gold carried hints of mud and vomit. Pevan's eyes began to play more tricks, chance shapes in the breeze leaping out at her.

Her Gates grew more rebellious, fighting against her control before snapping into place, sparking and twisting sullenly afterward. Steadily the plain turned into a slope as gravity itself began to pull away from the Second Realm. Falling darkness mercifully cut off the longer-distance views that held the potential to break a careless, wandering mind. The moon rose, swollen and bloated past anything familiar. Pevan could almost feel its light caressing her.

Then they emerged from a Gate to find the world twisted a clear forty-five degrees away from where it should have been. Pevan stumbled, fell head-long down a sharp downhill slope that had been a slow, smooth rise when she Gated to it. The grass that met her had a fungal, lumpy texture, its long stems pawing at her face until she squirmed up to a half-sitting position.

Chag had fared no better. He crouched nearby, massaging his ankle. Painted in silver moonlight, he looked more Wilder than human as he said, "I think we're close." The words brought with them the heady scent of strong spirits, which surely wasn't Chag's breath.

Pevan planted her feet wide apart and pushed carefully upright. Back the way they'd come, the land rose endlessly, a mountain beyond anything that had existed even before the Realmcrash. She turned to look the other way, and realised with a rush of vertigo that she was looking down on the moon. Gravity had shifted again, turned the world into this impossible hill, and dropped the moon, still close to the north-western horizon, below her eye-line.

Before that thought could spin her head round any further, she looked down. Chag swore softly, more in surprise than anger, but the word still hung in the air for a second, a spray of mist that might shred flesh if touched. Pevan turned and found him leaning at yet another impossible angle a few yards away, his body almost pointed at the moon.

He looked back at her - or down, from his perspective. "Good news is, we're pretty close."

"You were expecting us to run into this?" Pevan chuckled awkwardly to take the sting from her words. "You could have warned me."

"Sorry. Wasn't sure how far out we were." He waved a hand northward. "The gravity trap goes on for about ten miles from here. We'll have to be careful."

"The Sherim's on the other side?"

He smiled mirthlessly, and the cold light made him cadaverous. "It's at the centre. Eventually it supplants gravity, just plucks you off the ground and swallows you."

Pevan's stomach turned, slowly, at the thought. "Sounds dangerous."

"It's actually one of the easier Sherim to navigate." She could almost believe Chag's brightness was genuine, rather than mocking. "You just don't have much time to get the psychological transition right."

"Any tips?" She said sardonically.

He shrugged, one eyebrow raised. "You're the expert."

"Every Sherim's different." She knew she'd spoken too sharply when Chag's face hardened. Well, it was his fault for being flippant with the question.

"So is every Gifted. Unless you feel like sharing your usual mindwalks?" Lurking behind the edge in the little man's voice was Pevan's uncomfortable awareness that he wanted to know.

She shivered. Most days she felt pretty unhappy about admitting her mindwalk to herself. Crossing a Sherim meant breaking her identity down to its basics, and she'd never been comfortable with what she found down there. Rel was the same, though he'd never admit it. Pevan watched Chag's face, thinking you first, until she realised he might be looking for an opportunity to share.

To her relief, his face softened. "Look, it's faster and you'll have to deal with surprise, maybe even panic. There's plenty of room for irrationality in the fear. Scare yourself."

It was solid advice, and it suggested whoever had trained Chag to this Sherim really knew their stuff. It gave her something to work with. Renewed confidence pushed her to shaky humour. "That shouldn't be hard, with the planet throwing me off."

He chuckled. "We've got some ground to cross first. How close can you get with Gates?"

"All the way, if need be." Pevan took some small pleasure from the way his face widened. She poured sweetness into her voice. "I'd rather stop a couple of miles out, though, if you don't mind the walk?"

"I'll manage. Let's get going."

Crossing the gravity trap in the dark quickly revealed itself as a fool's errand. Every time they went through a Gate, one or other of them clobbered themselves on the rim, or fell on landing, tricked by the lurching, bucking landscape. Gravity was stronger in some places than others, once so crushing that Chag catapulted back out of the Gate almost as soon as he dropped in.

The aches mounted and marshalled, abetted by the cold night and clothes that still held the ghosts of the rain from earlier. Pevan clamped her jaw shut to keep her teeth from chattering, and cursed the darkness for concealing whether Chag did the same. He couldn't be staying warm, could he? The journey dragged, just a little bit too complicated to fall into the monotony with which they'd crossed the Wilds.

Reality strained around the Sherim, and the tension swirled into her Gates. When the opening of one Gateway began to glow, she put up a hand to stop Chag jumping. She snapped the Gate closed. "From here we walk."

He didn't argue. After the confusion of the last quarter-hour, the walk was almost comfortable. Shifts in gravity grew more and more common, each one bringing a rush of nausea and a stumble on tired ankles, but between shifts they could have been out for a brisk night-time stroll. Better not to think too hard on that idea, given Van Raighan's affections.

The Sherim took them by surprise. Pevan stumbled through another shift in gravity, stretched a leg out forward to catch herself, and never reached the ground. The darkness ahead and above plucked her up, flipped her over and treated her to the best possible view of the fleeing planet. She fell backward, her body tensing as every sense she possessed told her she could expect a hard, painful landing.

Fear gripped her through that tension, her breath seizing in her throat, her face pulling into a rictus. The Sherim tightened on her skin, the usually sensual tingle battered aside as the air tore at her clothes. A few feet away, Chag fell towards her. She tried to roll in the air, turn her body around to point her head towards him, her legs away, but the flapping of her skirt held her back. Van Raighan's eyes were shut, but she couldn't believe he wouldn't try to get a peek.

She felt the moment they passed under the Sherim as a vicious twist in her spine. The moon swung past beneath her as she arced back toward the planet hanging in the air above. Her skin crawled as the Sherim tightened like a thousand disembodied hands creeping under her blouse. She screwed her eyes shut a moment too late to miss the wild grin on Chag's face as he swept past.

Hair whipped into her face. The world spun around her even as she orbited it. All sense of balance abandoned her. With the Sherim tight about her chest, her breath choked off completely, giving her the sense of being shaken in the fist of a god. Her mind gave the god Van Raighan's rat face. Long, thin, knobbly claws wrapped around her, her clothes snagging and tearing on their yellowed points.

He drew her close, whiskers prickling at her face, leaving her no breath for screaming. Desperately, she fought the image, pushed it back, strained to escape. Her mind went with it. Mindlessly, she fought on, but her hands flailed uselessly, making no contact with those horrid fingers, or the dark pits of its eyes.

Chag's rat-god grip stayed unrelenting, but her hands passed through it. Why couldn't she pass through with them? Were the hands not hers?

She was in the little man's hands. But if she was in his hands, how small must she be? Must she be at all?

Her eyes snapped open to a whirl of primary colours that owed nothing to the cold northern night she'd left behind. Her lungs didn't fill, exactly, but the tightness vanished. She concentrated on controlling her shallow gasps, curling into a ball. For a moment, ahead of her, a straight line formed between one patch of colour and the next, and she grabbed it for her horizon. The green became grass; the watery yellow hardened into a dawn sky.

That gave her ground to hit. Unfortunately, her body remembered how far - and how fast - it had fallen. The impact seemed to shock the wind back into her. She rolled onto her back, staring up at the yellow sky. A patch of blue at the corner of her eye shaded into a glowering cloud. The spray of pink straight ahead - straight above - became a flock of tiny birds. Steadily, Pevan reduced the chaos pouring in through her eyes to something meaningful. Imagining the sounds the Second Realm could not provide helped. Birdsong to greet the dawn. The soft susurrus of wind through leaves that suggested that jumble of reds and oranges was a rosebush.

She looked around for Chag, only to have to dive out of the way as an indistinct animal shape charged. Long and lithe, it flowed across the ground without seeming to put a foot down. Her heart surged; whatever the creature was, it was no species of Wilder she knew. A predator, from the way it came at her again.

Pevan threw herself sideways, hit a patch of blue that she let burst over her into water. Swimming, she might stand a chance of escape. Where was the Sherim? Without Rel or one of the Warders, the predator would kill her easily.

She sank into the... bubble? Pool? Eyes closed, she lost track of where her horizon had been. 'Down' vanished, just as she felt the predator drag a rip current through the water by her legs. She kicked out hard with both feet, the gesture part attack and part swim; her head broke the surface. She opened her eyes and breathed the not-air of the Second Realm.

No sign of the predator. Automatically, Pevan restarted the process of making sense of the wild Realmspace in front of her, but before she'd even found a horizon that fitted, something broke the surface beside her with a violent splash. She flailed her arms, trying to get away, but reason caught up and identified him as Chag before she could make too much of a fool of herself.

He shook his head, his hair spraying her with a cold that was somehow worse than the pond they were immersed in. Careful to keep her voice low, her speech directed past rather than at him, she said, "Predator. Below."

The words spun lazily past his face, an incandescent colour that was almost blue. He flinched, and for a moment wore a collar of ripples that tickled Pevan as it brushed past her. Chag said, "That was me." The sounds came out as a cloud of red-brown dust, and Pevan ducked her head under the water to keep from inhaling it.

As she surfaced, she realised Chag had done the same. He shot her an apologetic glance and she answered with a shrug.

"You were mapping wrong. I had to shake you out of it." This time, his muted voice, clipped short of his usual drawl, gave the words wings, and they sped away into the unrationalised madness beyond the pool. Pevan dragged her eyes back from them before she could be sucked into another interpretive mistake. Once you found a pattern that made sense of the Second Realm, it was very hard to shake free of it. If she wanted to follow Chag, she needed to accept his map.

She nodded to him and lifted her hands out of the water to make the hand-over-hand gesture for him to take control. He signed acceptance, almost slipping under the surface as he did so - his splutters birthed a cloud of butterflies whose wings bore images of Pevan's face - and turned away. She felt rather than heard his shouts, rippling through the Realm in waves of pure human concept. The sounds distorted past comprehension, but she could follow the meaning from their effects.

Beach, and the broad swathe of yellow became a low, hummocked slope of sand. Jungle; behind it, a wild scrawl of greens reared up into trees, rich with exotic fruits and draped in enormous flowers in shades of pink and cream. A wave rolled forward, carrying them towards the shore. The faint tang of salt in her nostrils was all the warning Pevan got before undertow sucked her briefly below the surface.

She came up spitting acrid water and struck out toward the sand, kicking awkwardly with her legs and trying not to wonder what Chag would think of her poor form. Fortunately, before long her paddling hands struck coarse sand. The next wave drove her onto land, only an outstretched arm keeping her from a mouthful of beach.

Firm beneath her, the sand scratched as she crawled up out of reach of the surf. The texture surprised her, an odd mix of concrete roughness and the malleability of soft earth. It clung to her skin and clothes, packing under her fingernails in a way that denied the possibility of ever feeling clean again. She pushed to her feet and stood dripping in the bright sunless daylight of the Second Realm.

She rubbed her hands, trying to get the sand off, but it felt like it was taking her skin off with it. Chag came up beside her, his boots squelching. "Let it dry. It'll just drop off." His words came as a shimmering ribbon that floated gently downward. They stepped back to keep clear.

Pevan nodded, even as she automatically patted at her blouse, scrubbing uselessly at the muck. Wet and separate from the beach, it was more grey-brown than yellow. She gestured for him to lead on, and followed him up towards the trees. Chag limped, stumbling whenever the dry sand shifted. Once, she reached out to steady him, her wrist twinging sharply as she caught his weight.

The tree-line was further than she'd expected, and though there was no sun in the sky, the warmth of the beach dried her off in short order. She barely needed to touch her hands together to dislodge the sand, and beneath it her skin felt softer. She shook out her blouse as best she could without taking it off - small chance of that, with Chag right next to her - and the sand cascaded out of it.

Glare reflected from the beach made her squint, but she judged it a fair price for the warmth that flowed into her. By the time they reached the trees, Pevan found she was sweating. She tugged at her blouse, trying to generate some airflow, then caught the drift of Chag's eyes and snapped a hand to her chest. She stabbed at him with an angry look, but he'd already turned away, and the misery on his face could have been disappointment just as much as shame.

She was just getting over the flush of embarrassment when the little man turned back to her, his face stiff with formality. He gestured a flat circle with one upraised finger, then pointed to himself; follow me exactly. Another pointing finger identified the nearest tree, told her they'd be climbing it. But how? It had no branches, the ridged trunk shooting straight up for what had to be at least a hundred feet.

Chag went up it as easily as if it were a ladder all the same. It took Pevan a moment to figure out how he'd done it, but when she put her hands on the trunk, she found the ridges ran deeper and thicker than they looked, deep enough to take her fingers comfortably, thick enough that she could, albeit awkwardly, get purchase with her boots.

As she climbed, the ridges grew wider and flatter, turning into a ladder of slots cut into the surface. The canopy fled ahead of them faster than Pevan could climb, though above her Chag seemed on the verge of touching it - not that it would necessarily seem so to him; his ten-foot lead on her meant he might be seeing anything at all up there.

With a start, Pevan realised she wasn't holding on to the rungs of the ladder anymore; the bark under her hands had become a path of rough, uneven rock. It bruised her knees as she crawled. She looked back, found that the yellow beach had blurred to a sunset orange, the sea above it become the deep indigo of an evening sky.

She began to push to her feet, but Chag waved an urgent hand for her not to. She shot him a frown, but he repeated the 'follow exactly' gesture, his face set hard. Pevan knelt back down, enduring the discomfort of the abrasive surface as she resumed crawling.

A moment later, she found out why crawling was preferable. Her sense of up and down disappeared altogether as the Realm at the edges of her vision went dark. Her weight vanished, and she scrabbled desperately to grab some lump on the bark, fighting the impression that she might just drift away into chaotic space.

Pevan got her breathing back under control, looked up again and yelped. Chag had turned into a giant fly. At least, she hoped it was him. There was a patch of human skin sandwiched between the glittering eyes and black mandibles whose contours matched the little man's narrow, angular nose, and the fur at the back of its head looked straggly enough.

None of which was enough to stop Pevan's skin crawling fit to slip clean off her. She tried not to look too hard at the jagged, glistening mouthparts. Iridescent, shining in greens and pinks, the creature's wings must have spanned at least six feet. Which, she noted in horrified amusement, matched the number of its legs, black rods of chitin in too many segments. How many knees did one creature need?

Worse still were the thick brown hairs scattered up and down the limbs, waving lazily in an otherwise-imperceptible breeze. They alone were enough to make Pevan sure she never wanted to be touched by Chag ever again. Her stomach turned even as she finished the thought. She couldn’t help cringing as he reached up with one leg and awkwardly mimed a ditto - copy me.

Revulsion made finding the concentration to cram herself into the right shape nearly impossible. Every hair on her body seemed to stand on end, a feverish inflammation at every root. Her eyesight blurred as her eyes bulged, then resettled into a jewelled, fractured pattern as if she looked through a hundred tiny windows at once. Her wings, when they sprouted, gave her none of the sense of power she was used to from her Second-Realm wings. At least they were shot through with the same scarlet she'd worked so hard to perfect.

She fluttered them experimentally, and buzzed in alarm when they almost yanked her off the tree. The sound burrowed into the wood, but not before Chag could flinch backward. For a moment, his foreleg became an arm, half-raised to protect his face. Somehow, the displaced limb was far grosser than the rest of him as a fly. Pevan's stomach turned back over.

Thankfully, Chag took that moment to spring away from the tree. It happened so fast that Pevan almost got her legs tangled trying to copy him. Even then, her leap seemed to throw her miles, the vast brown plain of the tree trunk waving wildly across the sky behind her. Reflex kicked her wings into motion despite the odd lack of gravity.

She shot forward, trailing Chag by a good dozen feet, turbulence swirling all around. He headed for a great yellow orb ahead of them; it took Pevan a moment to realise from the dimpled, waxy surface that it was some sort of exotic fruit. The smell of it flowed into her mouth, a tang so sharp that it cleared her mind completely.

Intoxicated, she swung into a wild zig-zag, swaying through the air as she pursued Chag. He seemed to sense her excitement, pushed forward himself. Pevan brought herself alongside him, watched him through peripheral vision grown suddenly brighter. Though his bulbous eyes had no pupils, she could feel his gaze on her too, amused and warm.

She was losing herself. Regretfully, she forced herself to concentrate on her wing-beats, focus on how inhuman they were. The sensation was completely different to the birds' wings she'd trained with; there was none of the sense of strength in individual strokes. Instead, the strokes blurred together, flickering too fast to see, turning the air behind her head into a dazzling net of carmine sparks. She could feel the wings flexing and twisting like paper in the wind.

And yet, somehow, she flew effortlessly. The ground released her from bondage while the fruit filled the sky ahead amid a cloud of heady scent. This must be how the world looked when you were the size of a fly; in the Second Realm, who was to say she wasn't so small herself? The rest of the world blurred away to a faintly peachy off-white. The fruit ahead was everything.

Chag made no effort to land on its surface, plunging in only a few feet ahead of her. Wincing in anticipation, Pevan followed, and the apparently-solid skin exploded into a cloud of rippling orange globules. She dodged frantically, weaving left and diving before one of the lumps caught her, splashing across her, drenching her. She'd had more than enough of that for one day, but the liquid - it was impossible not to think of it as juice - was thick with sweet flavours. Her mind reeled, and her flight with it.

More juice spattered her, clinging to her, drying quickly to a sticky mess that slowed her wings and dragged her downward. A burst caught her sideways-on, spinning her over in the air, and she screamed as the drag on her wings jagged pain into her shoulders. The scream drilled into the air ahead of her, coils of blue light too hot to look at shattering the juice to smaller droplets.

Chag fell past her, grabbing her hand. She flowed back into human form, plummeted with him, ignoring the splashes of juice that suddenly seemed laughably insignificant. Tied to the little man by their clasped hands, Pevan found herself twisting around toward him. Air rushing past pushed them together despite her putting out her free hand to fend him off.

He caught her around the waist, freed his hand from hers to loop it over her shoulder. She tried to lean her head away, keep him from pressing his cheek to hers, but their ears still touched. The sticky dampness clinging to both of them made the sensation revolting, but she managed to hold her tongue. Chag's hair clung to her face, and she had to splutter to keep it out of her mouth.

Something slapped her on the back, just shy of hard enough to hurt. It came again, and she realised Chag was flapping his hand against her shoulder-blade, tapping something in Safespeak. The tapping code of the Gifted had never been Pevan's strongest suit. She responded with the code for slower please, forced to acknowledge she'd clung to him as tightly as he to her.

He tapped, Sorry. Nearly there. They dropped through a tunnel ribbed with stripes of Second-Realm colour. Most of them were near enough white or blue to escape being truly painful to look at. Chag tapped something she didn't catch that ended with -henext bit. Hold tight.

Pevan started to tap what she hoped was the code for again ple- and had to grab tight handfuls of Chag's abused jumper as they spun wildly in their descent. She could see rather than feel the wind that buffeted them, batons of red and green and not-quite gold bouncing them back and forth, catching them to toss upward again.

It had to be a Wilder, or a swarm of them. Terror surged in her as something pounded her back, but it was only Chag, beating the signal for non-random. Something caught her feet, upending them both and sending sparks of dizziness across her vision, but if Chag was right they were safe. Too late to stop trusting him now, even if it would have done any good.

She adjusted her grip on him, clung tighter even though it brought his face up close against hers. The unmistakable sense of his nearness - the nearness of another being she could understand - held her mind and her logic together as her conceptual framework broke apart under the assault. There was nothing in the First Realm she could relate to the pair of impacts that sent them tumbling along an axis she wasn't even sure the First Realm had dimensions for.

They fell sideways, flipped, careened back the way they'd come. An impact lifted Chag's body away from her, panicked aches shooting through her palms and the soles of her feet as her grip on him slipped. The next strike slammed them back together, and she felt the wind go out of the man in her arms. Somehow, he held firm.

She pushed her legs between his, then looped outward to catch him. Oddly limp, he still managed to respond, wrapping them together all the tighter. His whimper left a trail of lilac smoke for a moment that told Pevan exactly how wild their descent had become. You could barely even call it a descent anymore.

Which made the final impact all the more unfair as it slammed the air from them both. Chag landed underneath her, and just barely she kept the landing from knocking their heads together. She lay on top of him, gasping, feeling his equally short breath tickle her ear. The ground beneath his head was white, stroked with grey so that the resemblance to albino grass was unmistakable.

Pevan managed to push herself up to hands and knees, Chag's arms sliding from her back and flopping to the grass as she did so. The thief's skin was almost as grey as the ground beneath, his mouth hung slack and his eyes focussed somewhere above and behind her. Had he hit his head too hard on impact?

She put her face back down to his ear. His skin was chill against hers. Careful to direct her words past him and into the floor, she whispered, "Chag, are you alright?"

He let out a sound too weak for a groan and just too strong for a sigh. "You kicked me in the balls!" Even in a gasped whisper, reproach stung the words. Unable to help herself, Pevan flinched sideways, but his speech stayed inert.

Chag coughed, coughed again, and began to chuckle. Pevan lifted herself back to hands and knees, looked him in the eyes. He met her raised eyebrow with an impish smirk. "You'd kill me if I asked you to kiss it better, wouldn't you?"

Shock ran a thrill down her spine and into her gut, but it was laughter that bubbled up in response, great gales of it that flushed the tension from her. Chag joined in, wheezing slightly as he laughed. She buried her head in his shoulder, let his arms close around her. It was just relief from the fall being over, but it was good to get it out.

He'd spoken straight to her face, and incisively, without any Wild effects. They had to be in the Court, then, but that seemed an odd place to find - what was it he'd said? - an alternative to the Gift-Givers. The Court was the Gift-Givers' fortress. Why were they here?

"Have you brought a fool with you, Chag Van Raighan?" The voice stabbed through their laughter like sword-steel, flat, straight and laden with a peculiar kind of dispassionate menace. A Wilder's voice, unmistakably.

Pevan sat up, focussing on the dappled greys and silvers surrounding them. It didn't look like anywhere she knew in the Court. A dark arch divided the world; the far side showed the Second Realm's usual riot of colours. The near side, formed of polished, jagged rocks veined in silver, formed an odd mix of cave and pre-Crash human architecture.

Centred in the archway was a figure that she took some time to identify as a Wilder. It could have been a monument, cast in bronze by a madman. Polyps of rich red-brown and oak-coloured Realmstuff rose from the floor into a dizzying tangle at waist-height, from which a handful of thread limbs reached up to the ceiling. Though the roof of the cave looked to be yards high, Pevan had no sense of distorted space as the Wilder walked towards her across both ceiling and floor.

Pevan pushed to her feet, reaching down to help Chag up. To her, his voice low, he said, "We're word-safe here, but follow my lead."

He started to turn to the Wilder, but Pevan whispered, "Where are we? This doesn't look like the Court."

"Should it?"

"I thought only the Court was word-safe." She could feel the frown on her face, however unfair it was to withhold trust in the matter. A shiver ran through her as she thought of making the journey back to the First Realm without knowing where she was starting from.

Chag's face darkened, eyes narrowing. "The Gift-Givers don't know everything." He turned to the Wilder and raised his voice. "Forgive us, Ashtenzim. This is Pevan Atcar." He spoke flatly, mimicking the Wilder's inhuman tone.

The Wilder - Ashtenzim? - flowed into a new configuration, and a wave of blush-heat swelled up in Pevan, the sense of the creature's Second-Realm communication. In its wake came the words, somehow seeming all the more awkward now Ashtenzim spoke directly to her, "Welcome, Pevan Atcar. I am Ashtenzim, occupied as spokesone for those you will know as Separatists."

"Come again?" She caught herself short of showing too much bafflement. Ashtenzim was worse at human mannerisms than most Wildren. Pevan waved a hand in front of her mouth, hoping the Wilder understood the gesture, and began again. "I'm sorry, your welcome confused me. I'm Pevan Atcar, Gatemaker of Federas." The ritual greeting restored her equilibrium, but Ashtenzim shuddered as she spoke.

"Ashtenzim speaks for the Separatists," said Chag, studying her. "They're the Children of the Wild I wanted you to meet."

"Separatists?" Pevan glanced from Ashtenzim to Chag and back.

"The word explains itself, Pevan Atcar." Ashtenzim waved polyps sideways, a Second-Realm gesture, except that Pevan found she could see the creature's irritation in it.

"I ask your pardon to explain, Ashtenzim." Chag bowed his head as he spoke, but his eyes never left the Wilder.

Ashtenzim rippled, the breathtaking grace of the motion spoiled by the underlying emotion of contempt. Pevan reeled as it washed over her.

Chag steadied her, and said, "The Children of the Wild don't all agree with the Gift-Givers. Even some of those groups which don't see us as food find us... unpleasant to deal with." He glanced at Ashtenzim, who had retreated to the mouth of the cave, and lowered his voice. "The Separatists are the most powerful of those. They want to break the Gift-Givers' power in the Second Realm and put an end to interaction between the Realms."

A stone sank into Pevan's gut. "You can't be serious. What about feral predators?"

Chag shook his head, "It's more drastic than that. They claim they have a plan to actually separate the Realms, for good."

"Separate?" She gaped at him.

"Hence the name." He managed a weak smile. "I haven't been able to understand any of the details they've offered, and they aren't telling me everything, either."

"And you trust them on this?" Pevan knew she should leave it at that, but the thief's attempt at lightness deserved worse. "What's this got to do with your crimes?"

He had the decency to flinch. "That's complicated. It's to do with Second-Realm politics, but not in a way we can understand."

"Not good enough." Pevan turned to Ashtenzim, saw awareness in the rigid angles of the Wilder's pose. "Ashtenzim, please explain as best you can. Why did you send Chag to rob those towns?"

The Wilder's voice matched its form, harder even than usual. "Talerssi was taken from the Gift-Givers."

"What is Talerssi?" Pevan heard the heat creep into her voice. "Was it worth the deaths?"

Ashtenzim shrank as the emotion in the words reached it, its limbs writhing in distaste. "Curb your anger if you wish to make requests."

Pevan bit back a yet angrier retort. Bad manners could still get her censured or killed here. Chag put a hand on her sleeve, but she shoved it away. The little man said, "Will you at least let me show you what they showed me? I can't make you believe me, but I was as dutiful a Gifted as you and your squad before I came here the first time."

"What were you doing this far from your village, then?" Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ashtenzim retreat further. Turning her anger on Chag clearly hadn't made the Wilder any more comfortable.

"Looking for Rissad." Again, Chag gripped her arm. "Please? I swear if you're not convinced I'll go back to Federas with you, no trouble." His face creased with pleading intense enough to look pained.

"We have not agreed, nor will we agree, to such an arrangement." Ashtenzim cut through Chag's desperation.

The thief straightened, "I made no promise to serve you indefinitely, Ashtenzim. Either way, this is the wrong time for that argument." He turned back to Pevan. "Please? You did promise to hear me out."

Which was true, though it also showed up how ill-thought-out the promise had been. She had not been her best at the time. Still, she gave Chag a stiff nod.

He turned to Ashtenzim and swallowed slightly, his jaw tight. "With your leave, Ashtenzim, I'd like to introduce Pevan to Delaventrin."

"You have my leave." The Wilder's voice fell so flat it almost became sardonic. "Delaventrin is in the Shtorq."

The cave twitched slightly at Ashtenzim's last word, as if the whole Realm and everything in it had instantly shifted a half-inch to the right. Pevan staggered as her body tried to compensate for a movement that hadn’t happened. Chag crooked his fingers at her, then pointed from himself to the back wall of the cave.

It struck her suddenly that, as a Witness from a safe town far from the Wilds, he'd probably spent his training wondering whether he'd ever use any of it. Either he'd practiced obsessively, or someone had given him a very thorough refresher. His signals had been crisp and clear throughout the journey. And how many Gifted could use the tapping code fluently? Well, Rel and Dora, probably, but other than them?

Had Chag's training come from the Separatists? If so, it spoke well of their power and diligence. Ashtenzim's awkwardness might be born of hostility rather than poor familiarity with First-Realm logic. She glanced back over her shoulder at the tangled, confusing shape of the Wilder where it hung in the cave-mouth, re-evaluating. Taking her eyes off the creature gave her an uncomfortable shiver.

The back of the cave looked like crumpled paper, and it unfolded as they approached. It flowed flat, so that they walked down a narrow canyon between sheer white walls. Reflected light made looking up too high impossible, which, Pevan reflected, was probably a good thing. She had the sense that they walked between the pages of a giant book that threatened to slam shut any moment.

Ahead, the crack of light grew suddenly into an opening, rushing toward them and stopping as Pevan flinched. Chag caught her wrist with an unexpected ferocity and yanked her forward. She stumbled, bit back a curse, and fetched up against the handrail of a marbled balcony. Behind her, there was no sign of the opening where she'd just paused.

She surveyed the room to avoid wondering what Chag had saved her from. A huge cylinder of white stone, blazing with light from some hidden source, stretched away above them and a good way below, immaculate surface broken here and there by the tooth-like protrusions of balconies. A fat brass pipe spiralled around the room, swinging close to the railing where Pevan leant, its colour striking after the monochrome cave. Below, cradled in the tail of the pipe, a small platform floated steady on a sea of darkness.

Chag stepped up beside her and called out, "Delaventrin? May I have your pardon?" The chamber rang with his words until the air seemed to hum.

"Welcome, Chag Van Raighan." Delaventrin's voice came just as Pevan reached up to cover her ears against the echo of Chag's. She dropped her hands and spun, sure the Wilder must be right behind her. White, blank and unmoving, the wall glared back at her. If there was a Wilder on the balcony with them, it was invisible. It spoke again, and again, the words seemed to emerge from the air just behind her ear, "You have brought Pevan Atcar?"

Pevan rubbed her neck, trying not to shudder. "I'm here."

"Indexicals are a waste of words, Pevan Atcar." The words carried none of the ambience that had amplified Chag's. They were a gentle, smooth stroke running through her ear canals, too demure even to be sensual. The voice of a small creature, which perhaps explained why she couldn't see anything that might be Delaventrin on any of the nearby balconies. The Wilder finished, "Both of you, please descend."

Pevan yelped as Chag vaulted the balcony-rail and landed astride the pipe. He slid away downward before she had a chance to call after him. Shouting would have been no good anyway, as her yelp bounced around the cylinder, filling her ears with a steady, painful whine. Eyeing the darkness below warily, Pevan climbed onto the rail and reached out to touch the golden surface of the pipe.

It hung just out of reach. Pevan flailed her other hand and managed just barely to escape slipping off the rail by grabbing hold of it. Her strained wrist protested, but she pulled herself back upright. Chag's leap had spoken of substantial practice. Could she match it? Did she dare try?

No, her tired mind insisted, but no other option presented itself. Teetering, feeling her legs start to tremble, Pevan got to her feet on the flat top of the handrail. Her boots were just small enough to give her steady footing, but bracing to leap forced her to look down, and she slipped. Her breath seized in her throat. As she began to topple, she thrust outward, pushing as best her legs could manage.

The pipe hit her in the belly, and she scrabbled at the too-smooth surface through a haze of pain. The metal was so slick it felt wet beneath her touch. Had her body not hung down on the far side of the pipe, Pevan realised she'd have slid off into the blackness beneath. As it was, gravity pulled her down around the spiral, draped across the pipe like a rag.

She stretched out, trying to shift more of her weight forward, but the motion unsettled her balance. With the ponderous inevitability of an old tower block finally crumbling into collapse, she slipped around the side of the pipe. Pressing her hands flat to the gleaming surface offered no extra purchase. She caught a glimpse of her weather-ravaged face and hair reflected in the metal as she fell away. Not a dignified way to go.

Some combination of stone wall, hammer and Chag Van Raighan hit her from the side just as her feet started to go cold from contact with the black whatever-it-was. She bore him to the floor in a bruising tangle of limbs and grunts. Whatever she landed on was rough enough to rip the skin off her knuckles. She flopped over sideways, hissing a curse. Chag groaned.

"Are you injured?" Delaventrin's voice remained intimate and calm, now speaking from the stone directly beneath Pevan's ear. She took stock one limb at a time, found it impossible to tell the difference between fresh bruises and those from earlier in the day. Her abdomen ached, but that had to be as much from hunger as from her landing on the pipe.

She must have slid down faster than First-Realm logic suggested was possible. There was no telling which of half a dozen balconies they'd started from, but a wild guess put the length of pipe she'd ridden high in the hundreds of feet, at least a whole turn of the spiral. Above her up-turned face, the room - the Shtorq? - climbed straight up into darkness.

She found her voice surprisingly steady, if thinned by lingering tightness in her chest. "I'm alright. Chag?"

He groaned again. "I'll live." She heard a scuff as he pushed to his feet. When he spoke again, his voice came clearer, flatter. "Please forgive us, Delaventrin. We may need a moment to recover."

The platform bobbed ever so slightly, the Wilder's simple affirmation spreading through Pevan's consciousness. She pushed herself up onto one creaking wrist and peered into the black liquid rippling gently by a few feet away. Was Delaventrin in the water? Was the Wilder the water itself? She couldn't rule it out.

Chag offered her a hand, and a rough heave got her to her feet. The little man had blood trickling down behind his ear. Pevan said so, and he raised a hand to poke at the cut, wincing when he found it, somewhere above his hairline. The gesture was so like Rel that Pevan took a step closer and pulled his hand away from the injury.

He shot her a puzzled look. Well, she couldn't back out now, it would just be rude. She dug her hankie out of her sleeve, grabbed Chag by the forehead, and turned his head sideways to get a look at the bleeding. He gave an awkward cluck, but no protest. The cut proved small, buried somewhere close to his hairline; she pulled his hair back out of the way and pressed the cloth to it. She was too experienced from her brother's adventures and misadventures to let Chag slip away when he flinched.

"You do care." He grinned, his tone making a joke that his eyes fell just short of matching. "Do you have to care quite so hard?"

"Hush." Pevan tried for her best Dora impression. "It's not much, but it'll bleed like hell if you let it." Alright, so perhaps Dora wouldn't be quite so rough, unless Rel had been really foolish. Chag reached up to touch her hand, and she pulled away before she realised what she was doing. He frowned as she fumbled the hankie into his hand and pressed it against the injury. "Just hold it like that for a minute."

He did so, pushing his head slightly to one side, the planes of his face hardening with something that could have been reproach just as easily as puzzlement. The harsh light didn't favour him. Pevan looked away, searching for Delaventrin to save her from the hanging conversation. There was still no sign of the Wilder.

"Delaventrin?" Chag's voice fell flat and disappeared into the low rustle of the waves. "This is Pevan Atcar, Gatemaker of Federas."

For a moment, Pevan thought the Realm spun around her, and staggered toward the platform edge while her brain dizzied with the clash. Then she realised it was the pipe revolving slowly around them. Delaventrin's voice startled her back to herself. "Welcome, Pevan Atcar." A ripple of amusement that had nothing to do with the black fluid around them rocked the platform. Pevan let herself stumble a step or two back from the edge.

Her gaze crossed Chag's, and the little man nodded toward the gleaming brass of the pipe. Softly, he said, "As far as I can tell, when you're in the Shtorq it's best to think of Delaventrin as that."

Pevan frowned, then set herself to face the pipe close to where it plunged beneath the water. "Hello, Delaventrin." After a pause to figure out the correct manners, she went on, "Can you explain the Shtorq to me, please?"

"You will find it easiest to think of the Shtorq as a place where your consciousness can share directly in my experiences. Previous attempts to inform humans in more detail of how the Shtorq works have caused regrettable logic breakdowns." The Wilder's tone stayed perfectly flat, its skin and form unchanging, but a shiver still ran through Pevan. She folded her arms against the prickling of her skin, but the sensation stayed.

Delaventrin continued, "Before the Realmcrash, Shtorq were what you would call sacred to my species. No other but the Shtorq in which you stand survived, or if any did they have yet to be rediscovered."

It was easier to dwell on the history than think about sharing a Wilder's experiences. Pevan said, "I am honoured to be here, Delaventrin."

"Yes, you are." Had the pipe shifted, ever so slightly? Pevan squinted, but she had no way to be sure. Delaventrin could only have chosen the words for their menace.

The pause hung, waiting for someone to confront the question of what Chag had brought her here to see. What experience could Delaventrin have had that would convince her to join the Separatists? It was clear the Wilder had never been to the First Realm, could never hope to survive there. She couldn't see how Delaventrin could even leave the Shtorq.

Chag glanced down, his Adam's apple bobbing in what looked like a clumsy attempt to clear his throat without making any noise. He said, "Delaventrin is a Clearseer, for want of a better way of putting it."

Pevan frowned. "What's so special about that?"

"You didn't know?" Chag's face showed no surprise. "Clearseeing is not a natural ability among Children of the Wild. It's another thing the Gift-Givers keep hidden."

"But it's a Gift!" Pevan tried to rein in her puzzlement. "If it's not of the Second Realm, how does it work?"

Chag's jaw tightened. Voice thick, he said, "It's a Gift of something else, and no-one will tell me what. Even though I was the one who stole some for the Separatists."

"Petulance will not benefit you, Chag Van Raighan." Delaventrin's words came through the reeling of Pevan's mind like a paper-cut, flat, thin and sharp. "We agreed not to mention your prior activities."

"Well, I've mentioned them." Chag's face flushed rosy. "It was my idea to keep them secret anyway."

"I did not deny that." Delaventrin twisted, looking organic for the first time despite its gleaming skin. "I must establish Talerssi on the matter." The pipe began to slide down into the water, making the wall outside it seem to spin. Pevan put her hand on Chag's shoulder to steady herself.

"Stop!" The little man's whole body twitched as the shout went out of him. "Your Talerssi can wait. First, show Pevan the viewing."

To Pevan's surprise, Delaventrin spun back into place. "You accrue Talerssi by this, Chag Van Raighan, and I by saying so."

"Then when we are done here, you can explain Talerssi to me." Tension made the thief look gaunt. Pevan dropped her hand back to her side. Chag finished, quietly, "Show her what we brought her here to see."

"Make yourselves ready." Delaventrin's quiet acknowledgement shot a chill down Pevan's spine, spread ice through her gut. Hating herself for it, she shot Chag a worried look.

He put a finger to his lips, then took her hand. He pulled her down to a sitting position and lay down on his back, motioning for her to do the same at his side. His hand was cold, but she made no effort to shake him off. Their fingers meshed. Pevan let her head lie back and looked upward.

Her first impression was of forward motion, but it lasted only a fraction of a second before disappearing into the tempest as every part of the Shtorq spun in every direction. 'Up' and 'down' disappeared, replaced by the first stirrings of a fatigue headache. The only other sensation she could grasp was the pinch of Chag's grip between her fingers.

She caught hints of a pattern here and there, as if they flew through the gears of some great mechanism, great enough to grind the world to powder. The overall order eluded to her, but the sense that it was there comforted. She attributed it to Delaventrin's hand - or polyp, tail, or non-specific limb - drawing them into the Wilder's consciousness.

Then Delaventrin actually grasped them. For a second, thought fled before the impression that everything whirling before her hung inside everything else. She gasped, squeezed Chag's hand and rode the surge of emotion provoked by his proximity to reseat her identity. The whirling Shtorq came into focus. Suddenly, she saw how that arc of black-veined scarlet blocks drove that crystal wheel, twitching the ratchet of incongruous timber until it tipped and tumbled that eerily choreographed cascade of tiles into motion...

Pevan followed the flow of reactions through the system to a point dead ahead of them. In the distance, through the chaos, she made out the cylindrical shell of the room, gently spinning. There was no sign of the brass spiral that she had taken for Delaventrin, but she understood what she saw well enough to know that the Wilder was much more than that.

The Shtorq forced her attention back to the centre-point again. There, a set of four or perhaps five discs spun through one another, flashing colours in a rainbow that encompassed the spectra of both Realms. Distance blurred the scene grey, and an image leapt out at her, trailing a tangle of roots that speared away into the distant future.

It was the familiar image, lodged in her brain like a bad tune, from Chag's Witnessing that morning. Pevan, with her arms around Chag, their lips pressed together. The scene was much clearer here than it had been in the Witnessing. There was no mistaking the passion in her eyes as she pulled back from the little man.

Details of the scene brought welcome distraction from the subject at its heart. Where were they? Somewhere in the First Realm, by the steady, safe greens of the terrain rolling away behind them. A hut stood in the middle distance, plain and forlorn. The Pevan in the image was wearing a skirt she didn't recognise, knee-length with tight pleats that flattered her, but still promised excellent freedom of movement. At least there was something to look forward to about this future, then.

Actually, she had to admit, it looked like she was enjoying herself well enough. She put that thought aside before it could turn her stomach any further. Almost as if at her command, the image shattered, the splinters tumbling into a new configuration . The picture that emerged came with an odd twinge of dizziness.

It took her a moment to realise why. On the broad sweep of a gentle hill, the trees all grew straight up and naturally, but at thirty degrees to vertical. The bird that flittered across the foreground flew at the same angle. Crossing the gravity trap might have felt the same, had they done so in daylight. Pevan resisted the urge to press a hand to her gut.

The image shook, and a wall of muddy water smashed across it. Currents swirled in the muck, spitting branches, rocks and the battered corpses of animals into the air before catching them again. Her jaw hanging open, Pevan tried to imagine the strength of the Wilder behind such an attack. How had it been achieved? Was this the danger that had motivated Chag's compliance with the Separatists?

A torrent of other visions of catastrophe poured in while her mind still reeled. The tower blocks of old Federas, hurling themselves against one another and crumbling. A Realmquake shaking a modern village to splinters. An indistinct jumble of animal shapes that might have been a heap of corpses, smeared in filth and blood.

Pevan half-retched as that image scattered. The grey blur that remained in its wake became the bare stone walls of a dark cell. Rel stood in the centre of the room, arms folded, jaw set. She'd never seen him look so angry, so proud. His narrowed eyes seemed to dress the room in fire, his whole aura radiating power. Only the depth of the shadows around his eyes betrayed his weariness.

Dora, her hair for once tidied into a high ponytail, faced him, her face slack with sadness and bewilderment. She gestured, saying something. Pevan thought the Four Knot's lips finished on the words ' reasonable'. She'd never been able to lip-read before. Was this Clearsight at work?

Rel's response was clearer. "I stand by my judgement. The Gift-Givers have lied to us, Dora." His eyes flashed as he spoke, and Dora looked down, pain written in the cast of her cheeks, the lines framing her mouth. The Four Knot turned as something tugged at her sleeve-

Pevan blinked. The air in the cell shaped itself around a third figure, invisible, drawing Dora away. The Four Knot glanced up, met the invisible figure's eyes. A door, or something like it, shut, the viewing fading to darkness. Rel had complained often enough about Gift-Givers being invisible to Clearsight; it was easy to recognise what she'd just seen.

Her skin crawled. She fought back her attention from the Shtorq and turned her head to find Chag watching her. Despite her memory of his hand being cold, the warmth of his sympathy flowed gently up her arm. She opened her mouth to speak, and only realised she had nothing to say after he'd pressed his finger to his lips.

The world gave a lurch like the sensation of gravity reversing. Pevan's stomach somersaulted through her abdomen, forcing her half-way to sitting as she curled up. Chag groaned. Pevan let herself flop back to lie flat on the platform that once again floated at the bottom of the endlessly tall Shtorq chamber.

She looked at Chag again, unable to escape the compassion in his eyes. He held his voice to a whisper. "You see my point of view now? I'm sorry to have to ask at a time like this, but I have to."

Dimly, Pevan sensed the brass coil of Delaventrin's presence recede. She closed her eyes, raising her free hand to rub her forehead. "I don't understand enough of... of all this."

"Nor do I." She recognised the bitterness in Chag's voice from their first conversation - had it really only been that morning? The little man released her hand, pushed himself up to sitting, and gazed down at her. "But Pevan, we can't trust the Gift-Givers. You see that, don't you?"

Rel could have done something stupid enough to get himself censured. He'd come close before. He was supposed to have grown out of it. She wanted him to have grown out of it. She didn't want to have to trust the Separatists, or Chag, even if he-

Better not to finish that thought right now. "I want to speak to Rel. And Dora." The Shtorq damped the quaver out of her voice. She could almost pretend she sounded tough and determined, but somehow she doubted she was fooling anyone else.

"Well, at very least we're going in the same direction, then." Chag smiled. "They'll be in Vessit in a couple of weeks. If you join us, your first assignment will be to accompany me there to intervene on Rel's behalf. If not, well, since you're going that way, might I have the pleasure of your company.

Wit eluded her. She was just too tired to cut the little man down to size. He deserved it, however prettily he smiled when she nodded.

* * *

Next episode

No comments:

Post a Comment